Voices Lost and Found plus Two New Writing Tricks

by

Debbie Burke

Recently, a wonderful, unexpected opportunity came my way.

My pal, Susan Purvis, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the St. Eugene Writers Conference near Cranbrook, British Columbia. She invited me to tag along and share the hotel room the organizers had graciously provided for her.

Writing workshop, free room, and a favorable exchange rate—what’s not to like?

To Honor “The Children” at St. Eugene Mission School

 

Surrounded by snow-tipped mountains with the St. Mary River flowing past, the St. Eugene Hotel had a once-dark history and was supposedly haunted.

Built in 1910, on a road to hell paved with good intentions, the Canadian government and the Catholic Church operated St. Eugene as an Indian boarding school. First Nations’ children were separated from their families, not allowed to speak their native tongue, nor practice cultural traditions and customs.

The boarding school system broke down traditional family structure, resulting in generations of poverty with staggering rates of alcoholism and chronic unemployment. The school was closed in 1970.

For the next few decades, the building languished in decay—deserted, vandalized, and flooded. But the spirit of the Ktunaxa people prevailed.

In 1984 Elder Mary Paul said, “Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

Mary Paul’s vision of rebirth was carried forth by Chief Sophie Pierre, who had herself been a student at the school. The chief spearheaded years of rehabilitation of the old building.

St. Eugene is now a world-class resort hotel, beautifully refurbished with conference rooms, restaurants, and a casino. A championship golf course and KOA campground occupy former pasture lands.

Teepees at the St. Eugene Resort campground

Today, the resort employs more than 250 people; many are descendants of former students of the boarding school.

Sophie’s son, Joe Pierre, is the current elected chief and delivered a moving blessing at the keynote dinner in both the Ktunaxa language and English.

Photos from the past decorate the hallways, including one that appears to capture a ghostly figure among the solemn faces of school children. A presence has been sensed in various rooms of the hotel.

In a location so steeped in history, how could a writer not be inspired?

~~~

Now to what I learned:

Renowned playwright/novelist Anosh Irani divides his time between Vancouver, where he teaches, and his native India. Anosh introduced two new writing terms I hadn’t heard before.

The first concept Anosh talked about was The Wound.

The wound can be literal, like a physical problem, a disease, an injury, a chronic condition that restricts and constrains the character’s ability to function. The wound can also be mental, emotional, or psychological. Unseen wounds often affect the character more deeply than physical ones.

Questions to ask while you’re writing:

Is the story driven by a deep-seated wound in the main character?

Is the story about healing that wound?

Is the character free if s/he cures the wound/achieves the goal?

The second term Anosh talked about was The Crucible, which immediately brought to mind the Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials.

Photo credit: skeeze at pixabay

 

However, crucible also means: “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.”

In playwriting, the author places the main character inside a container (the stage) under extreme pressure and temperature. The character is trapped. Unless s/he wins, there is no way out of that cage.

Before this workshop, I had not been mindful of a major difference between novels and plays:

In novels, characters may roam all over the globe in search of adventure or a solution to their problems.

But in plays, actors are literally trapped within the confines of the stage and cannot escape. The setting may change but the stage remains a limited space—a crucible.

That concept resonated with me. As novelists, we can borrow that crucible technique and put it to work in our stories. The more trapped your character, the more heat and pressure they are under, the greater the story tension.

~~~

For a marketing perspective, YA novelist/editor Jeff Giles entertained us with his funny essay about how not to promote a book. “See More About Me” describes a debut novelist who wrote 326 Amazon reviews for books by other authors but, in each review, shamelessly promoted his own novel.

Also during the weekend, Anna-Marie Sewell, Poet Laureate of Edmonton (2011-2013), and Danielle Gibson, a teacher and YA author, workshopped with half a dozen talented high school students. At the group open reading, the kids performed their work with the confidence and charisma of veteran public speakers. We in the audience listened in awe and muttered to each other, “I could never have done that at that age!”

St. Eugene was once a place where children lost their voices. There’s a sweet irony that new generations now find their voices there.

Conference organizer Keith Liggett, a ski journalist and award-winning cookbook author, sets up several writing events each year at St. Eugene. Top-name speakers draw participants from across Canada and the U.S. The next gathering will be in February, 2020.

St. Mary River flows past St. Eugene Resort

St. Eugene nearly descended into ruin as a relic haunted by dark memories. In the new century, it has experienced a renaissance, emerging as a major employer in the region and a thriving recreation destination and cultural center.

 

Elder Mary Paul would be pleased.

 

 

 

TKZers – Have you attended a writers gathering in an inspirational setting? What did you take away from the experience? 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

22 thoughts on “Voices Lost and Found plus Two New Writing Tricks

  1. Sort of. A local writing group had a retreat at a convent. Great setting, plenty of time to write, or walk the grounds. However, as a nice Jewish girl, I found it disconcerting to be writing at the desk in my room with Jesus looking down at me.

  2. “The wound” is a good way to examine character motivation, I think. I often tell writers to dig deep into the question of “what does your character want?” The superficial answer (to solve the problem/case/murder) is never what is key. The true answer can be found only in the character’s deepest psyche. All human beings have wounds, so if you can find your character’s wound, you will find the heart of your story.

    This was really important to me in our most recent book, The Damage Done. Our series character Louis has a deep psychological wound left from his painful childhood in foster care. It defines him, though he has dealt with it only obliquely over the course of 12 books. In this last book, the plot’s events forced him to confront his wound head-on. As Wambaugh said, to paraphrase, “It is not about how the detective works the case; it’s would how the case works on the detective.”

    This is helpful. Will use it in workshops going forward.

    • Glad you found the concept helpful, Kris. I’m curious–did you know the depth of Louis’s wound from the early books? Or was it something that grew larger as you developed him more during 12 books?

      • Yes, the foster care backstory was there from his birth in book one. The first book dealt with Louis having to return to Mississippi because his birth mother was dying (she gave him away into the system when he was 8). He was bitter and angry, so that has always simmered under every book. But we — and he — weren’t ready to deal with it head-on until 11 years later. He isn’t healed at book’s end. He never will be. And that’s part of the point of the title — The Damage Done. You learn to deal with your wound and go on.

    • I took a workshop from Stant Litore and he also went into the “Wound”.
      Funny – you never hear of something and once you do, it pops up all over. There’s a word for that, too, but I’ve forgotten it. Of course.

  3. The St Eugene Writers Conference sounds wonderful.

    My husband and I have attended the Mt Hermon Writers Conference in Mt Hermon, CA for the last couple of years. The conference center is remotely snuggled among the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The accommodations are simple, but adequate. No TVs in the rooms and only spotty internet connectivity. Everything is provided on the grounds of the conference, so there’s no need to venture out into “the world” unless you need to pick up some forgotten item at a local drug store.

    We loved the insular atmosphere. In addition to the classes and workshops, the agents, editors, and publishers in attendance shared meals with the conference-goers, so it was possible to have lunch with Steve Laube and dinner with Kay Strom. And it’s easy to arrange meetings with those folks to pitch a manuscript or just learn more about their organization. In addition to making new friends, we came away refreshed, more knowledgeable, and with a sense of our place within the writing community.

    • I admire Randy Ingermanson’s teaching style and would like to meet him at Mt.Hermon…someday.

      Sigh…so many conferences, so little time and $$. But I agree, Kay, that a good one energizes a writer and gives us a much-needed sense of community in a solitary profession.

  4. A playwright on writing I recommend is Lajos Egri. His THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING is probably no longer in print, but it’s been summarized online so you should be able to find that, if not his books used. Also, his THE ART OF CREATIVE WRITING. For those who like story and character broken down to its atoms, he’s a good source.

    • Marilynn, Lajo Egri is new to me. I’ll have to look him up.

      Screenwriting is often touted as a helpful tool for story structure. It kind of overshadows playwriting, which has been around far longer than movies and TV. Plays teach many similar lessons.

  5. Aww, love that the children found their voices. Very moving post, Debbie. I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a workshop in a setting like this, but it sounds delightful. British Columbia is on my bucket list.

  6. I enjoyed reading about the history of the hotel and how it is now giving back to the people rather than taking so much away from them. This happened so often in the early history of our nation. Thank you for sharing that with us.

    Also, thank you for the writing tips. I have used The Wound for character motivation, but not intentionally. I will put that on my three act story template as another point to consider when fleshing out a new story. Excellent!

  7. I have seen the other side of Indian and First Nation schools.

    My Dad was a U.S. Indian Service–now the Bureau of Indian School–teacher, coach, and later, the school librarian. He taught in U.S. Indian schools for his entire adult life.

    And while there are those who love to claim the negativism of Indian kids attending Indian schools, I love to claim the positivism of Indian school educations.

    Those who claim the negativism of Indian school educations may never have attended the graduation ceremonies in which both boys and girls had tears in their eyes as they bid their classmates and friends goodbye, knowing they may never see them again because they’re not from the same hometown, not even the same reservation, maybe not even from the same state, certainly not from the same tribe.

    Never watched sports teams composed of members of different tribes and who were usually much smaller than their opponents, rally and beat the tar out of opponents from schools whose student populations and their adults ridiculed them for being American Indians.

    Never signed school annuals in which a member of a completely different tribe wrote to his classmate, “We had some great times here, didn’t we?”

    Never watched as the tribal chairman of one of the most traditional tribes in the U.S., whose son attended an Indian boarding school, come out of the school’s Christmas pageant that presented the Christmas story in the King James Version language of the Books of Matthew and Luke, and say, “It’s good for us to come here and see this.”

    And, they probably never saw two tribal chairmen come together to solve a problem involving a land with dispute between the two tribes, who were high school basketball teammates, and who successfully navigated the process through the political demands of their respective tribal members and their demented attorneys, to a successful and peaceful conclusion of the disagreement. Despite the fact that there were members of both tribes who were more than willing to take up firearms to settle the matter.

    No, I don’t think a lot of people ever thought of or so that side of Indian or First Nation education.

    • Jim, I was hoping you’d read this and weigh in. Thank you for sharing your firsthand account of the Indian school system, esp. your story about the two basketball players who later became tribal chairman and peacefully solved the land dispute. No system is all good or all bad and your experience shows the positive effects.

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